Concert films, even the good ones, can all too often seem like adjuncts in a creative life, while music videos often just act as commercials, and biodocs typically signal a career at the end or in need of a push. Can a movie headlining a musician ever be its own special contribution to the oeuvre?
The performance film “Western Stars” feels like that for rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, who’s been in something of a reflective yet still artistic mind-set for a few years now, having excelled at memoir (2016’s “Born to Run”), and reinforced his legendary live chops by way of a powerfully autobiographical Broadway show. Now he’s taken the reins as a movie director (alongside regular film collaborator Thom Zimny) for a visual companion to his recently released, same-named album — an elegiac song cycle of brokenness and love inspired by the mythic pull of Southern California’s open spaces, sundowns and cowboy mind-set — that in its intimacy and honesty plays as if this is the way these songs were always meant to be enjoyed.
In this case, that means in an old, cathedral-like barn with a band (not E Street) and a strings-and-horns orchestra, in front of a small crowd, with his wife Patti Scialfa often playing right alongside him. And in between each of the 13 searching new songs are fragments filmed on dusty roads, picturesque deserts (that’s Joshua Tree) or lonely inside spaces, in which Springsteen’s rich growl speaks to the inspiration for each memorably crafted tale of hard-bitten, inward-looking souls, like the title tune’s narrator, who tells us, “I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on.”
Having forged a richly poetic career out of anxious down-and-outers itching to escape their lives — if they even know what they want — Springsteen’s new tunes take the notion of the West as a freedom seeker’s destination and explore what happens when there’s nowhere left to go but backward, to relive old pains and regrets as a way of finding a mindful peace. His cracked exiles include a faded western star, a battered stuntman and a failed songwriter. The weary figure singing “Hello Sunshine” recalls how the open road once held so much, but now, hungry for something like a grounding love, he realizes, “miles to go is miles away.”
In the opening montage of horses and morning light, with the man himself dressed like an old ranch hand, Springsteen describes the songs as “a meditation on the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.” But in the concert scenes, watching him in this evocatively lit, rustic space — his raggedy rock star light dialed down to a burnished troubadour glow — he masterfully strides both qualities: solitary storyteller and bandleader. He can make you believe he’s the only one on stage — as during the bleakly stock-taking “Somewhere North of Nashville” — but he can also turn to the string section during a sweeping, Jimmy Webb-like stretch of symphonic melody like the one in “The Wayfarer” and give a look to a pair of energetic cellists that says, yeah, we’re all jammin’ here.
The spoken interludes, which touch on love, character and life lessons, are where Springsteen, who recently turned 70, adds personal context, talking about his own darkness, failings and the rocky wisdom that comes with age and family. This leads naturally to a feeling that “Western Stars” the film — in the occasional home movie snippet featuring his wife, or tender vibe when they share a microphone — is also a nod to the healing love and stability he’s found with Scialfa.
It makes for a poignancy when the song is a widower’s wistful tale (the quietly aching “Moonlight Motel”), as if the strength to sing something so sad is only possible with her there, too. By the end, you almost want every recording artist with Springsteen’s compassion and lyricism to introduce their newest material the way he does in “Western Stars,” like a docent of everyone’s damaged soul, pointing to the parts that make not just the music, but the musician, too.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: In general release